Running the ball hasn’t exactly been the Eagles’ strength this season.
With a lead back in Josh Adams who was on the practice squad at the start of the season, the hamstring injury that cost Darren Sproles 10 games, and with Corey Clement struggling with injuries most of the season until finally being put on Injured Reserve Dec. 11, they rank 28th in the NFL.
Yet, when the Eagles run the ball a lot, they win.
In eight of their nine wins, head coach Doug Pederson dialed up at least 27 running plays. The only time they won when they ran for fewer yards was against the Houston Texans. In that 32-30 win, the Eagles had 22 rushes for 57 yards, as quarterback Nick Foles threw 49 times with four touchdowns and a franchise-record for yards in a single game with 471.
Sunday’s playoff game against the Chicago Bears will represent their sternest test in running the ball this season.
The Bears are the top-ranked defense in the NFL, giving up just 80 yards per game on the ground.
“This is definitely an excellent defensive team,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Each week, I think I would assume that (Bears defensive coordinator) Coach (Vic) Fangio is saying, ‘Hey, we have to stop the run,’ with every opponent. Not just us, but every opponent, stop the run, stop the run; put the ball in the air, and then they can let their pass rushers get after the quarterback. It's a challenge.”
The Eagles have failed to rush for 80 yards in five games – twice against the Dallas Cowboys (16 rushes, 71 yards in the first game; 14-34 in the second), the New Orleans Saints (12 rushes, 58 yards), the Carolina Panthers (24-58), and the Texans. In another, they only made it 81 yards – that was against the Vikings.
“I go back to the Houston game, and you try to run the ball, you try to run the ball; it's not there, it's not there,” said Pederson. “So at some point you have to make a conscious effort that if you're protecting the quarterback, which I didn't feel like we did a great job of that in the Houston game, but if you can protect, then you might have to throw the ball a little bit.
“But you still have to try to run the ball, you still have to, you can’t be going three-and-out all the time and putting the ball back to your opponent. There’s a balance. But somewhere in the game you have to make a decision you’re either going to stick with it or leave it behind and move on.”
The Bears’ pass rush can be ferocious, recording 50 sacks this season, with Khalil Mack recording 12.5. Their secondary is no picnic, either, not with cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson leading the NFL with seven and six interceptions, respectively.
It’s all added up to the Bears allowing the fewest points in the NFL with 283 for just over 17 points per game and are third in yards allowed per game.
If the Eagles cannot find a way to string some runs together it may not matter how much momentum the Eagles seemingly have. They have won five of their last six, with each of those games being virtually a must-win.
The Bears are no slouches with momentum, either. They have won nine of 10. Their lone loss in that span was a 30-27 setback in overtime to the New York Giants, a team the Eagles beat twice this season. Chase Daniel, however, was Chicago’s quarterback in that game, not Mitchell Trubisky.
The Eagles, however, are a playoff-tested team, and maybe that will come in handy, especially when it comes time to running the ball. The Birds’ offensive line was the best in the business last year, and has been showing great improvement over the final six weeks of the season.
“This is a different season now,” said Pederson. “You're in the post-season, so obviously expectations increase. Sense of urgency increases. Speed of the game gets faster. It's a situation where I think we benefit from last year, having been in the post-season, a lot of guys on this team and even the new additions to our team have been in the post-season before, so I think we can lean on those experiences.
“But I think everybody kind of has that clean slate and the momentum thing, you try to continue it. You try to keep it going. That's why you don't change a lot of things and you just try to keep doing what you're doing and then just continue to get better each day.”